Friday, February 25, 2011

Penguins Come To Play.

My daughter Hunter loves to go to the zoo. I don’t indulge her enough in this, I know -- a busy travel schedule and so many articles to write when I am home limits the time I have to take her out for an afternoon here and there amongst the giraffes and elephants at the Little Rock Zoo. I do need to correct this oversight.

But I am glad we were invited for a special sneak peek of the new Laura P. Nichols Penguin Pointe at the zoo this week. It was a very rare opportunity to see something straight off the blocks.

We joined our good friend Kelli at the front gates of the zoo Wednesday afternoon for a short but frisky ride in a golf cart to the new exhibit area. It’s about dead center of the zoo, overlooking some of the great apes and within eyeshot of the tigers. From a distance it’s a big outcropping of rocks under a cast iron mesh dome. Intriguing.

Kelli lead us down a path to a small staircase underneath what appeared to be a wrecked and overturned dinghy. Hunter had no problem making it downstairs, but Kelli and I had to duck underneath. There we found a semicircular window that looked down the exhibit at ground level.

I helped Hunter up the substantial step there and let her take a look. “Mommy?” she asked me, peering about.

“Look close, Hunter,” I told her, and she focused her eyes as she chewed on the nipple of her bottle. “Do you see them?”

She gasped and looked back at me. “Penguins?”

“Yes, Hunter, those are penguins,” I told her. She looked back and pointed. There were just two in view at that moment, sitting on the rocks built up on the far side of the exhibit from where we were standing.

Kelli was telling me all about the exhibit, and suggested I come around to the other side. I helped Hunter down and we exited the other side of the overturned “dinghy” to the sidewalk. I could see a tall tank and a new building topped with plants ahead of me. To my left, big glass panels that held back the water.

“Can you see the penguins?” Kelli asked Hunter, but from Hunter’s perspective on the ground she could see only the water. Kelli climbed up on the step just outside the glass and I helped Hunter climb up into her arms. She gasped again when she saw the birds on the other side of the glass.

“Penguins!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to take in everything she saw with big eyes. For a few minutes I took photos while the two of them looked at the birds.

Another journalist, Jennifer Dixon with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, had just arrived so we scampered down and back to the golf cart, which Kelli backed up and off-roaded to get around to the front again. Journalist tucked in, we went back and met with a couple of familiar faces, including Zoo education director (and longtime friend) Mark Shaw.

The penguins, more than half a dozen now, were all standing on the edge of the water, trying to decide if it was worth diving in. I do need to explain that they probably weren’t worried about the cold -- though it was in the 50s in Little Rock that day the water in the exhibit was heated, and I’m sure it would have felt splendid to take a swim.

These birds aren’t Antarctic penguins like you see in movies like Happy Feet. They’re from South Africa, African blackfoot penguins to be exact. They’re also called Jackass penguins because their call sounds like a braying mule. They’re sort of tropical birds and they like temperate climates. Of course, to be able to survive in summer heat in Arkansas they have to be pretty hardy fowl.

Hunter had already figured out two and two and calculated that if she could see a swimming pool and the birds were by that swimming pool that they could swim. “Penguins! Penguins! Come on in!” she hollered. “Water is fine!”

They stood on the edge of the water, jostling each other a little closer to the edge. I figured they could probably hear her a bit, but whether or not they were going to heed her, well, that was up to them.

And then suddenly they were in the water, five of the birds, plopping in clumsily on the surface but becoming fantastic black and white streaked torpedoes as they submerged, darting back and forth and playing, even. Hunter squealed with delight and watched them, her hands and face pressed against the glass.

There are nine birds total in the exhibit, seven males and two females. Of the nine, there’s a mated pair. The rest are “tweens,” adolescent penguins not quite ready to mate yet. There are also a couple of other African blackfoot penguins that won’t be joining them in the exhibit. Laura and Skipper will be with the education department. They’ll live behind the Civitan amphitheater stage and will eventually go out to schools and such as part of the education outreach program.

“Where did they go?” Hunter asked. The penguins had darted out of view. We walked back towards the dinghy. Flashes of black and white passed us again through the other panels of glass. Hunter ran down to the end and crawled under the dinghy again.

That dinghy, strangely enough, is made out of concrete. It’s a nice little kid-friendly observation point under there. There’s an observation point for the land section of the exhibit up top for the adults and of course those grand glass panels along the sides, but this area is just for the shorter-statured. Hunter clambered back up on the steps and squealed when she saw the penguins come up for air.

The dinghy and the rocks are all concrete, fabricated concrete gunite that should hold up well over time. The small mesh that’s over the upper part of the exhibit allows people to see into the exhibit and for the penguins to enjoy Arkansas and its climate -- but that mesh is also small enough that items such as coins can’t make it through. A single penny would be enough to choke a penguin to death, so it’s important to keep those items away. It will also keep other birds from getting in and harassing the penguins, though I have no idea if that’s a problem or not.

All of the birds in the exhibit come from the Species Survival Program -- a program shared with other zoos in which species like these are preserved through breeding programs. The birds all come from one place or another -- four from the Pueblo Zoo, three from Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, two from the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, and one from the Tulsa Zoo. While just nine birds will share this enclosure for right now, it’s big enough to house 20 -- the 1500 square feet of surface space is about the size of a typical ranch house.

Keepers were coming down to work with the penguins, and it was time for the birds to get out of the water. But we noticed they really didn’t want to get out. I couldn’t blame them -- playing in a nice warm pool or getting out into the chilly wind? I know which one I’d choose.

Mark tapped on the window lightly with the pads of his fingertips and a couple of the birds came up to the window, fascinated. They also peered through to Hunter, darting in front of her until they needed to go up for air and then coming back down. They seem to be naturally curious, just like us.

That tank I’d seen earlier, Mark explained, was for the exhibit, a water tank just for that pool. Inside the little low-rise building next to it were sand filters, pumps, a water chilling system for summer, ozonator and such. It’s lit by skylights and is buried to keep heating and cooling costs down, and the plants on top are local plants chosen to fit in with the whole African veldt theme that section of the zoo has picked up.

Thing is, Penguin Pointe is rather neat. It may be the only sort of exhibit of its kind, certainly is around these parts where you can view the penguins both in the water and on the land. The tank holds 20,000 gallons of water, plenty for the birds to play in. There are nesting boxes in the back almost out of sight where the males will keep eggs warm to hatch (that’s a penguin thing, the males doing it) and there’s a viewing area on the indoor section of the exhibit where keepers will work with the animals. It’s a pretty impressive $2.3 million dollar exhibit -- and all that money was raised and the whole thing built over four years thanks to donations, grants and other fundraising efforts.

Well, we’d been there a while and it was time to move on. We quickly toured the zoo before heading home… it was chilly and coming up on Hunter’s naptime. I buckled her into her carseat and climbed in, and moments after I started the car I looked back I noticed she’d fallen fast asleep.

She’s been talking non-stop about the penguins ever since, looking at the photos I took and telling her daddy that we’re going to go out and see them again soon. Soon will be about a week from now -- when the exhibit opens to the public on Saturday, March 5th. I’m sure there will be other little girls going up to the windows, wide-eyed and gape-mouthed in wonder, and a few who’ll be calling “penguins! Penguins!” and pressing their faces against the glass, watching the birds play.

Oh, and parents -- a really neat little photo opportunity? Up on the main walkway just outside the exhibit there’s a great cut-out panel for you and the kids to pose as penguins. I caught this shot of Hunter there before we left. Cute? Of course.

For more information, check out the Little Rock Zoo’s website or call (501) 666-2406.

Pieday: Lemon icebox at Rita's

HUMBLE PIE:  Ritas Lemon Icebox is simple, satisfying
  • HUMBLE PIE: Rita's Lemon Icebox is simple, satisfying
When I was in college, my future husband and I often took to the roads around Russellville and just went and drove when we had free time. A summertime drive brought us to Hector, where we found Rita’s Restaurant. The year: 1993. The temperature: well above 90. We were hot, we were thirsty and we needed a bite to eat.
I do recall at the time how pleased we were with the air conditioning, the sloppy wet roast beef sandwich we shared and the waitress who never let our glasses get past half-empty. And I remember a certain strawberry ice box pie that was just delightful.
Of course, that was nearly 18 years ago. I am old, or at least I feel like it running around after this toddler we share these days. My journeys haven’t taken me past Hector in a long time.
However, working on assignment for Arkansas Wild, we decided to take the scenic route up to Marshall and passed through Hector this past Sunday morning. And there it was, Rita’s Restaurant (since 1989), on the south side of town, west side of the road. Of course, I had somewhere I needed to be, so we didn’t stop.
Yet that afternoon coming back I kept thinking about Rita’s and wondered if it would be anything like what it was. Already having ate, I wasn’t hungry for a big meal, but passing through the communities of Welcome Home, Tilly and Nogo I had that familiar sensation. I had a hankering for pie.
So once we were back in the big time city limits of Hector (population 534) we headed to Rita’s for some iced tea and whatever pie they had on hand.
When we walked in, one of the ladies behind the counter told us to sit where we like. She asked if we’d been there before. When I told her it’d been more than a decade and a half, she mentioned that the folks running the place now had taken it over a few months earlier. That was a slight cause for concern.
I needn’t have worried. With the exception of an added Pizza Pro menu (why are so many places doing that? I need to do THAT story at some point, and besides it might have been on long before the takeover, but I need to get back to the story and out of these parenthesis) it had barely changed — a variety of sandwiches, burgers, home cooking and such. And the desserts were still listed on a wipeboard at the front. The day’s options included Lemon Iced Box (their spelling), Coconut Cream, Cheesecake and peach and apple fried pies.
I wanted and needed some pie, and the ice box pie sounded good. So that’s what was ordered, along with some fried mushrooms to balance out some sweet. That’s the sort of thing you do, right? Or maybe I’m just weird.
The pie came to us first (for $2.59, in case you were wondering), an ample tall slice of homogenous whipped pie. It didn’t look like a whole lot, I will give you that, sorta yellow but more beige on a tan crust. I felt differently when I tasted it, though.
Unlike the error so many places make when dealing with lemon, this was not overly sweet nor overly tart. It was a simple blend of lemon zest, cream cheese and perhaps sour cream, sugar and whatever other goodness was in there, all piled into a crushed vanilla wafer crust. It was light and it was mild, not very sweet or tangy but substantial in its flavor-weight, cleansing the palate. Refreshing. Simple. Beautiful.
I had to set down my fork and look at it. It was so humble but so good. My my. The flavor didn’t leave me when I’d stopped, it just stayed there on my tongue and hinted at lemon a little longer. Not too cloying, just there.
The fried mushrooms were good and plentiful enough, cooked golden brown and served with ranch dressing. They were great to share, too. But I still kept looking at that pie, and had to go back and finish it off.
There was nothing over-the-top about it. No sprinkles, no whipped cream, it wasn’t a la mode or set aflame or anything else. Now, why can’t more places serve up pie like that these days? This is Sunday potluck dinner pie. This is the sort of pie people bring to spring picnics. I want some more.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that pie will be there when I get back. All pies at Rita’s Restaurant are made fresh each morning, and when they’re out they’re out. If they sell them all before you get there you can console yourself with a milkshake.
You’ll find Rita’s Restaurant on Highway 27 in Hector. It’s open Monday through Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the same on Sunday except they stay open until 9 p.m. — which is unusual, since places tend to close earlier on Sunday. It’s to get the after-church crowd in. I can dig it. (479) 284-3000.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Hunka Pie

NICE MEAT:  Hunka Pies burger patty is substantial and tasty
  • NICE MEAT: Hunka Pie's burger patty is substantial and tasty
You have probably already read the review in the current issue of the Times. I will own up to it. I stand by it all the way.
I will also stand behind the fact that to me, Hunka Pie's nascent burgers have already won me over. They are some of the best burgers in the city, and while I still have to say Capital Bar & Grill's ground sirloin burger is my favorite, Hunka Pie has slid into a firm second.
First off, there's the bun. Pairing up with Boulevard Bread Co. for the bun-age was genius. It's a soft pliant yellow bun and it carries a nice sheen. It's also extraordinarily soft — not what I usually look for in a bun but so welcome here. Burger juice takes a while to soak through to your fingertips.
There's the regular Hunka burger. The patty on that burger is the closest thing I have had anywhere else to approximate how I make burgers at home. That's why I assume there's some Worchestershire sauce, some onion and garlic in there. It's a nicely spiced burger. The meat's a little more well done for what I usually go for, but then again I've never asked for medium rare off that grill. You ask for cheese, you get a heck of a lot of cheese. Chris'll put any of those ordinary toppings on the burger you want.
And there's the Bombay Burger. Chris actually came out to my vehicle to ask me about the chutney. Says it's inspired by the chutney Masala Teahouse + Grill offered up. I can so get behind that. First burger I've ever had that's cured a bit of Indian food craving for me (and I get those a lot). Now, on its own the meat has a nice cumin-turmeric-cardamom flavor, not too strong but definitely not a traditional American-style burger patty. But dip that burger in the slightly minty cilantro-yogurt sauce on the side... and you've left the confines of burger city and headed straight to Kofte Kebab-land. It tastes just like, I kid you not, the kofte kebabs over at Ali Baba's. My favorite kofte kebabs in the city. And it's a smegging BURGER.
There is one other odd thing I didn't think I'd like. I don't care for French fried onions — the sort from a can. To the point I won't touch green bean casserole during the holidays. When I noticed the patty on the Bombay Burger was sitting on a pile of them, I was a little off-put. But I can honestly say I have finally found a way I like them. They added a nice substantial crunch to an already exotic burger.
So I went back yesterday and tried the Asian Turkey Burger and got a completely different experience. Save the bun, of course — that same good Boulevard Bread Co. burger. The meat, though, had a nice soy flavor to it. What really made this burger, though, was this slaw made from chunks of cabbage and carrots. all drizzled in this great peanut sauce. It gave a whole new dimension — between the tangy pickle of the "Thai crunch slaw" and the creamy peanut sauce and a firm meat patty. It was packed tighter than the ground beef patties, but otherwise I could not tell a difference.
So there you go, three burgers at a pie shop. You really should try it out. I'm serious. Hunka Pie is located at 7706 Cantrell Road in Little Rock. Call (501) 612-4754 or check out the website.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ode to pie.

JUST PIE:  Er, Chess Pie at Guss Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis
  • JUST PIE: Er, Chess Pie at Gus's Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis
It has recently been suggested to me that if I'm going to write about a different burger every Thursday, that Fridays should be Pie-Days. And you know, that might be a good idea. Or it might not.
Thing is, I do know a lot about pie. It comes from being raised in Arkansas, I'm sure, a state where there's a pie on almost every menu (there's even a pie CASE at Panda Garden, go figure). I've even been collecting photos of pie for some time now. Got a whole album full on Facebook. You can go look if you want.
So come Friday, watch out. I have a pie to tell you about that I doubt most of you have ever consumed. It's a good one. You have one I should check out, let me know.

The Wonder of the Headwaters.

Did you know the 10th largest spring in the world is located right here in Arkansas? Barely, but indeed it is. It’s within spitting distance of the Missouri border in the aptly named town of Mammoth Spring. That’s also the spring’s name.

You can’t see it -- because it emerges from the earth 70 feet under the little pond that caps it. You shouldn’t drink it, thanks to high concentrations of different chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater in the area due to runoff. But you can visit it and paddleboat on the small lake right by it and even feed the ducks there. Let me take you to Mammoth Spring State Park.

The spring itself has been a stopping point for centuries. Osage peoples lived in the area and fished the Spring River, which is formed by Mammoth Spring and the Warm Fork right there. Geologist David Dale Owen inspected the spring back in 1850, and soon afterward it started to draw tourists fascinated by its enormous size. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad came through in 1883, sidling right up to the side of the spring. And in 1887 a dam was built, creating the small lake you see there today.

It wasn’t all about the water, of course. The spring’s abundantly quick flow pretty much brought the idea of mills right to the mind. There was a grist mill right before the point where Mammoth Spring flowed into the Spring River in the 19th Century, and in 1925 a small hydroelectric plant was built there to supply electricity to the area. It stayed in operation until 1972; you can still tour the old damhouse today.

Though the spring itself was declared a state park in 1957, the first bit of land for the park wasn’t acquired until 1966. In 1971 the old rail depot became part of the property and the rest came through in 1975.

An oddity about the park -- it’s home to a national fish hatchery. The facility was created in 1903 across the railroad tracks from the spring and lake, and its cool waters are fed into the ponds on that side. Today the hatchery maintains the only captive spawning population of Gulf Coast striped bass in the world. Fish from Mammoth Spring are used to stock national wildlife refuges.

The spring itself is an interesting visit. I like to make the hike around the lake starting with the south side, which takes you across the dam and into the old hydroelectric plant. You can still see much of the original equipment inside, carefully preserved.

Around the end of the lake and back along the shoreline, you come to a paddleboat dock. The depot is right there, the old 1886 Frisco depot full of neat exhibits about life at the turn of the 19th Century. For $2.25 ($1.50 for kids) you can have a guided tour of the artifacts and such.

The lake trail hugs the shoreline and quickly darts back into the undercover a short distance from the picnic pavilions on the east side. I usually step aside for runners who seem to like the loop around the lake. It’s nice and shady on hot summer days.

And then there’s the trail leading up to the island by the spring itself, which we of course can’t see. There are usually ducks about… I’ve spent a good deal of time watching mother ducks and their trail of ducklings darting back and forth across the water.

It’s peaceful on the little island, quiet for where it is but still not so removed that you don’t hear road noise on nearby Highway 63. It’s a good place for contemplation, especially on warmer days when the cool of the constantly 58 degrees water seems to lift the heat from the water’s edge. To stand on the edge of the 10th largest spring in the world, one of nature’s wonders… it’s a moment to reflect and to think about how massive 9.78 million gallons of water an hour really is.

If you’d like to check out Mammoth Spring, make it a day. From Little Rock it’s about three hours -- Highway 67/167 to Bald Knob, Highway 167 up to Hardy and then Highway 63 right up to the border. The state park there also doubles as a welcome center.

Be sure to check out the Arkansas State Park website for more information.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Burger joint of the week: Penguin Ed's BBQ

I’m always willing to try a new burger with promise, even at a place that’s known for something else. That’s how I ended up eating a burger and not the famous barbecue at Penguin Ed’s BBQ in Fayetteville this past weekend.

Apples to apples

GOLD & BLACK:  Opals and Blackapples
The end of the season has just about come for our beloved Arkansas Blackapples. Our state’s finest arrive at fruit stands and the occasional local grocer in the fall and we scoop up what we can. But by February the honeymoon is over. Only the most carefully preserved last this long with their firm, sweet and starchy flesh — and here at Chez Robinson they are bound for bread and pie (though I did sneak one into the oven with a little cinnamon and nutmeg this afternoon… yum).
I was sent a box of apples today — a box of strange, strongly bronze beauties from Washington State. They’re a new breed of apple I’ve never encountered before called Opal. They’re like a Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious but slightly sweeter — and they don’t brown hardy at all. I think these apples are going to be eatin’ apples — chances are they’re not going to make it to the oven in any sort of application. They taste like spring — very sweet-tart and really crisp. I’m digging on them.
How about you? What sort of apples do you like? Is there a particular best apple for eating, baking and whatnot?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Architectural and Culinary Restoration at The Grand View Hotel.

Ever just have a dream you want to follow? Ever been brave enough to follow that dream? Alexander Virden has been following dreams for a while. His latest dream could change the face of downtown Berryville.

Virden used to work on oil rigs off the Louisiana coast. He lived in Algier’s Point, just a ferry ride from New Orleans’ French Quarter. Injuries forced him to leave his job as a diver, but he continued on by working to restore homes here and there.
Virden did eventually leave Louisiana, setting off in an RV and just driving where he felt. Something made him stop at Berryville, and that’s where his roaming ceased.

“I asked about this building,” he told me one Saturday afternoon during a late lunch. “I asked about this big building, and no one could remember what it was. I said “you know that building between that little shop and the post office? And people had just ignored it.”

That building was the old Grand View Hotel. It started off life as the Saint George Hotel back in 1902. Though it received an auspicious start with a gala dance in its grand ballroom, the property passed through a number of hands in its first decade. M.M. Hoagland added the balconies and porches to it shortly after he took it over in 1910. Mr. & Mrs. L.C. Smith bought the place in 1926 and renamed it The Grand View Hotel.

Dr. John H. Bohannan bought the hotel in 1943... He eventually added the commercial spaces in front of the hotel for more revenue. But by the early 70s the hotel was closed.

It was purchased in 1984 by Phillis and Carl Loehr, who attempted a massive reconstruction of the building but were unable to finish. It sat fallow for the better part of two decades, gathering bird droppings and an amazing amount of stored away junk. “You couldn’t walk straight through anywhere,” Virden told me. “You’d have to turn sideways. To get through this dining room there was a path from here to the hall. There was scaffolding, there was stuff packed all the way up to the scaffolding and then stuff on top of it. On the stairs it was packed so tight you only had a path just wide enough to go up or down. We hauled out more than 250 cubic yards of junk.”

“We” in this case would be Virden and his partner, Sandra Doss. While we were there for lunch we heard muted noised from the kitchen where she was working. I got the impression she was very shy.

Virden’s dream when he saw the hotel was to refurbish it - not just as a potential hotel but as an art space. He wants to encourage the arts in the small town. He also owns a space down the street,, 2900 square feet of gallery space and kitchen for local artists. Unfortunately thanks to all the demands and a slow economy he may have to part with that artspace soon.

The hotel, though, had so many possibilities. There are 14 rooms with ensuite baths above the first floor, still in the renovation process but so much further along than they were when Virden first bought the place in November 2005. On the fourth floor there’s a grand open space Virden hopes to utilize as event space -- a large area with its own kitchen that might host artists receptions, weddings and the like. The rooms could be let to artists in residence, possibly. Possibilities seem to be the order of the day at the hotel.

But the main focus these past three years has been on the restaurant. 302 on the Square is part of Virden’s dream -- not just as part of his hotel complex but to finance the completion of the renovations. It’s a time consuming effort, running an eatery -- and it’s eaten into time for actually working on the hotel. But it’s also a labor of love.

The recipes at 302 on the Square are family recipes. The restaurant itself is billed as a “Cajun-American” eatery. “We do the American favorites, hamburger and hot dogs. And we do the kind of food I know from Louisiana, the red beans and rice and stuff.”

I’ve dropped into the 302 before, a couple of summers ago while headed to Eureka Springs. I was taken by a singular dish, the South Carolina Strawberries & Cream ($4.50), only available when strawberries are in season. The marinated berries and heavy cream were served up over a hot flaky biscuit rather than the expected shortcake. The saltiness of that biscuit balanced perfect with the sweetness of the cream and the tart of the berries. It had made an impression upon me.

We dined at the 302 this particular Saturday on many of the eatery’s signature items. We started with simple Grand View Salads ($1.50/$3/$5 based on size), a nice mixture of green leaf lettuce, spinach, red onion, tomato and cheese with a choice of dressings. I went for a simple balsamic vinaigrette and was pleased.

What came out next though was something I can only describe as a momento of my childhood. The dish, listed on the menu as Louisiana Chicken and Gravy ($7.50), was straight out of my grandmother’s recipe book. The thick skillet pepper gravy, smothered free range chicken (all the restaurant’s poultry comes from Little Portion), that flavor of homemade poultry seasoning and a little thyme and butter, all served over a mound of extra long grain rice… that’s the sort of thing that will take me back. It was exactly what I remembered, very warm and hearty and peppery and… I lost myself in the dish. I really did. I took some of the gravy and ladled it onto a piece of the flaky biscuit that comes with the dish. This is the sort of thing that should be well preserved. This.

My dining companion’s selection was the Authentic Cajun Red Beans and Rice with Andouille Sausage ($7.50), served up with a sweet corn muffin. This too was served over the long rice. The roux in the dish was evidently perfect, a gravy-thick base to the substantial heft of the beans and the salty well-seasoned Andouille.

By themselves, the beans wouldn’t have been seasoned enough and the sausage would have been overwhelming. Together they were perfect.

The cornmeal muffin, yellow cornmeal, was sweet but not so very sweet as to be Northerly offensive. A pat of real butter made it even softer. Very nice.

Of course, being a restaurant in Arkansas there was of course a Reuben sandwich. This one ($6 served with kettle chips) was one of the better examples I’ve encountered. The sliced corned beef is tender and cut against the grain so that it falls apart in your mouth.

I liked the variation of chopped slaw -- which made it far easier to get a good bite out of the sandwich without mess. The dressing was tangy, and the Swiss cheese was more than ample -- a definite contender to the sandwich rather than an accompaniment or afterthought, a mistake many make with their Reubens. The very soft marbled rye was a nice touch.

And then came the catfish. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of fried catfish. It’s too often done badly -- whether from improper cleaning or a badly chosen source. I just usually don’t order it. But here, I was happy with it.

The batter was light but thoroughly seasoned with salt and pepper, a cornmeal batter that wasn’t overdone. And the fish itself… it… it was clean and flaky and properly cooked, good enough for me to convert.

The catfish is new on the menu… it wasn’t there when I’d made my previous trip. Just another branching out for Virden and Doss. “We get our catfish from Mississippi,” Virden told me. “We make sure it’s clean. That’s a family recipe we use for it.”

The hush puppies that come along with it are yellow cornmeal orbs with chunks of white onion and a little sweetness to them, an inch and a half in diameter. I’d consider the hush puppies and fish to best be eaten with the terrific green tomato relish offered with them… but then again, I love tomato pickles like this. That’s what I grew up on. My dining companion was not as convinced, preferring a little cocktail sauce with his fish.

There were French fries, and they were decent -- but then there was the coleslaw. I am used to coleslaw either being crunchy or very soft, and if it’s crunchy there’s a real lack of flavor to it. Not here. Somehow or another Doss has managed to make this a worthy coleslaw. “She makes it all up in small batches,” Virden told me. “She cuts up the cabbage and stuff and makes up the dressing separately, and she only combines them a little bit at a time as we go along.” It works. The crunchy vegetation is matched with a sweet and creamy dressing that doesn’t have any hint of staleness to it.

And then there was dessert. While strawberries were undoubtedly out of season, there were other options on the menu -- including several ice cream treats. One of the desserts we sampled was The Grand View Brownie Bar ($2.50, an additional $1.75 a la mode). This long brownie was topped with a thick chocolate frosting, and there was just about as much chocolate inside. It’s a smack-your-lips chocolate concentration. The premium vanilla ice cream comes from nearby Highland Dairy.

I forgot about the brownie (until I looked at the notes and photos) once I tried the Dang Good Pie ($3.50, a la mode for $1.75 more). The recipe comes from a friend, whose grandmother's grandmother had it in her collection. Five generations back, a recipe dating back to the 19th century… and well now. We’re talking about a pineapple-coconut pie. My first thought when I tasted it was how buttery it was. It was very much like pineapple upside down cake -- but with coconut. It was almost meaty in texture, with such a strong and delicious brown sugar flavor to it. The crust was handmade, too, unsweetened butter crust nice and crisp, with a little dotting of whipped cream to top it off. I loved this pie. This is one of the best pies I have ever had in Arkansas. And it’s generational. Wow.

It was an impressive meal -- especially for lunch -- and much of it went back with us as leftovers.

There’s far more work to be done on the hotel. Virden’s next project is to complete the renovation of the Garden Room on the back of the first level and to add a small greenhouse off the back so he and Doss can start growing their own herbs and vegetables to use in the restaurant. That’s going to be quite a bit of work, but I’m sure they’ll manage.

I enjoyed the chance to sit down with Alexander Virden but lamented one thing. This was the second time I’d attempted to make it up on a Friday night, but both times snow on the roads had postponed my trip. I have to go back -- and probably will -- come this April or May. I have to go enjoy the Hootenanny.

That’s right, every Friday night starting at 7pm local musicians come in and jam the way the hollows around these parts have been jammed for more than a century -- with good local folk music played on local instruments. I want to hear the hoot and holler and kick back with a sing-along or two. This experience will have to wait for another time, sadly. Seems I keep bringing snow to north Arkansas this year.

There is more you can learn about The Grand View Hotel… on the website documenting its rebirth. You can also find a complete menu for 302 on the Square and start planning for your next run through town. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Both can be found on the Berryville Square. For more information you can call (870) 654-3952.

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